Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Salvation History in Three Minutes or Less

For those who have trouble keeping straight in their head whether Moses was before or after Jesus, I offer this brief account of salvation history:

In the beginning (and we mean "beginning" in the broadest sense, the sort of beginning that could span billions of years), God created everything, from angels to galaxies to cockroaches, and as creation's crowning achievement, he made human beings, endowed with intellects so they could know God and wills so they could love God and bodies so they could serve God in the material world. Humanity was to live in union with God. But these very first human beings disobeyed God and did the one thing He asked them not to do: they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, and bit off more than they could chew. Their bond with God was broken by their own actions. So God banished them from paradise, and thus began the long, sad story of human death and misery. But even then God planned, in the fullness of time, to restore humanity to unity with Him.

Part of God's plan was to form humanity by establishing a special relationship with certain human beings, making covenants with them. He made a covenant with Noah that He would never again flood the entire earth and would no longer make war on humanity. He made a covenant with Abraham that He would bring forth from Abraham a holy people, a people set apart as God's own. He made a covenant with Moses to let Israel flourish in the land He would give them if they obeyed his commandments and laws. He made a covenant with David that David's descendants would rule Israel as a shepherd tends his sheep and always enjoy God's favor. And after the time of David, through the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, through the captivity of the people in Babylon, through their return to their land, the prophets, from Amos to Isaiah to Jeremiah to Malachi, continually proclaimed God's promises of His covenant, assuring the people that they would one day be fulfilled.

Let's put the contents of these covenants together: God promises to have peace with humanity; God promises to make a holy people; God promises that the people will flourish if they obey Him; God promises that the Son of David will lead this people. God fulfilled all of these covenants perfectly when He Himself came to fulfill them. God took flesh and became man in the person of Jesus Christ, and through his life, death, and resurrection, brought peace between God and humanity, made a holy people of those who believe in him (his Church), gave them the sacraments to give them spiritual nourishment and new life, and became the Good Shepherd who leads his flock.

After Christ's ascension, the apostles spread the Good News of this new and everlasting covenant between God and all humanity, as Christ had sent them to do, traveling to all corners of the known world and building up the Church. (Tradition has various apostles going everywhere from India to Spain to Ethiopia.) The apostles then appointed those who would succeed them in guiding the Church in holiness and teaching the true faith, and those ones in turn appointed successors, so that, two thousand years later, via a sort of apostolic chain of custody, we still profess with the faith of the apostles, and are taught, governed, and sanctified through the work of the apostolic ministry (bishops, priests, deacons).

God keeps His promises.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Approaching the Trinity: Avoiding the Extremes

This Sunday is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. This great feast fittingly takes place very year after Pentecost, the holy day commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church--after the ascension of Christ, sent by the Father, comes the sending of the Spirit, and thus we see the Triune God, one God in three Persons, made manifest to us. It's an appropriate moment to stop and consider for a moment the most mysterious of the mysteries of our faith.

I titled this post "Approaching the Trinity" because it is downright foolishness to think one can comprehend the Trinity. To understand God in His inmost being, in which unity is three-ness and three-ness is oneness? You can't get your arms around it; the best you can do is walk up to it. It's very hard to say what the Trinity is, but a bit easier to say what it isn't. In this post I'll show you some of the boundaries of thought on the Trinity (this is why the other half of the post's title is "Avoiding the Extremes"): you can know then that, if you find yourself thinking in this way, you've gone too far and are no longer thinking of God as He is.

Now, if you're approaching a mystery in which you are trying to see in what way something can be both one and three, there are two obvious ways you can err: overemphasizing the oneness, or overemphasizing the three-ness. The first of these errors often becomes a sort of modalism, while the second tends to become tritheism.

Modalism is the idea that God really, truly in His being is one, but he only appears to us in different persons; that is, God appears to us in different modes. Under this framework, the Israelites would have encountered God in "Father mode," and then God would have incarnated in "Son mode," then been present to the Church in "Spirit mode." It seems nice and tidy, and avoids that messiness of trying to explain how one God can be three different Persons, and was the sort of thought that many an early heretic fell into (and not a few modern theologians, I'd wager). BUT this way of thinking doesn't fit our data from Scripture. When Christ speaks of the Father and the Spirit, he speaks as though they are different from him; yes, he says, "The Father and I are one," but he also says, "My Father and I will come and dwell with him," and "I will send you a Paraclete." Sometimes his language denotes unity, sometimes differentiation. What's the solution? Either there is, in some way, both unity and differentiation, or we would be forced to conclude that Christ is a liar, putting on some show to make us think there are three Persons involved when really there's just one. And since all parties would agree that Christ is God, and God does not lie, the last solution does not work. So modalism can't be true.

Tritheism is the idea that God really, truly is three different beings, is three gods, but that they are all one in willing the same thing, or something like that. I think that many people today tend to conceive of God in this way, that there are these three beings each of whom we call God, but we call them one God because they just seem to get along so well. Not only that, I think most people tend to become subordinationists, too, placing the Persons of the Trinity into different degrees or ranks, one being somehow higher than the other: when they think of God, they think of the Father as being really God, and then, oh yeah, the Son, he's pretty god-ish, too, and I guess the Spirit, we can't leave him out. Unfortunately, as with modalism, you could find scriptural support for such a position, as many early heretics did, simply by pointing to all those places where the Persons are spoken of as distinct: how can Christ pray to his Father if they are one being? Well, we could stray off into complex discussions of the Trinity sharing one act of existence, or the thornier questions of what exactly we mean by "God exists" if God isn't a thing among other things in the universe, but rather the ground and source of all that exists, and other such deep metaphysical topics that I'm not sure I understand myself, so instead I'll go with something a bit simpler. Anything that is to be called "God" must be infinite. There cannot be more than one infinite, because in order to be two, there would have to be something that was not the other thing, and thus neither one would really be infinite. So, if God is infinite, God must be one; hence, we cannot understand the Trinity to be three gods.

I would hope that this could be of help in your spiritual life. If you're thinking of the Triune God either as an actor with three masks, or three guys who are just super-chummy, then you're not really thinking of God at all. To help hammer these points home, take a look at the creed attributed to St. Athanasius of Alexandria, one of the great Fathers of the Church, who defended the divinity of Christ and the integrity of the Trinity against heretics of his day. Let this be a small start in coming to know God better as He is.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Love & Lust on NCIS

Fans of TV's #1 drama, NCIS, will be well familiar with the long-running subplot of romantic tension between Special Agent Ziva David, ex-Mossad officer and femme fatale, and Very Special Agent (as he calls himself) Tony DiNozzo, ex-Baltimore cop and permanent wiseguy. Perhaps you think I could do better than to spend my time analyzing TV relationships, but I think there's an important point to be made in looking more closely at this one.

Initially, when Ziva first appears in Season 3, the relationship between her and Tony is simply flirtatious. Ziva would "slouch provocatively," as Tony accuses her of doing, or make titillating comments about her after-hours activities. Tony would leer and make the sort of comments he no doubt frequently did as a Ohio State basketball star. Any potential interest between them remained on the most superficial of levels, which is, unfortunately, where all too many TV and film romances remain.

Think about it: there are an awful lot of romantic comedies and TV shows that advertise a "love story" but present nothing more than two people either wittily or awkwardly flirting with each other, exchanging pithy one-liners full of innuendo and intrigue, with the grand culmination of a one-night stand. So superficial. So shallow. Bo-ring.

Where's the emotional depth? The sharing of hopes and dreams and fears? The intellectual discourse? The gradual deepening of care and concern by shared experience? The exclusive commitment? Too often absent. But Tony and Ziva are different.

At this point in the show, Tony and Ziva have been through a lot together, even apart from all the cases they've worked on. Tony saved Ziva's life when she was kidnapped by terrorists. Ziva supported Tony after his experience going undercover courting an arms dealer's daughter. The two have been there for each other, admitting their fears and insecurities, sharing simple moments of joy, fortifying each other in dark times. They've shown that sort of jealousy for each other that is a slight twisting of a real concern for the other's well-being and happiness, whether it was Tony regarding Ziva's relationship with "C-I-Ray" or Ziva concerning Tony's relationship with Agent Barrett. Most recently in the show, Ziva has been dealing with her father's murder, and Tony has been right there with her, from the little comforts like speaking kind words to her in her native language (perhaps he said, "I love you"?) to working with her to track down the killer, to the simple affectionate gesture of holding her hand. And that seems natural and obvious, because the show has established the strong bond between them. Tony doesn't just like Ziva. Tony isn't just attracted to Ziva. Tony doesn't lust after Ziva. Tony isn't infatuated with Ziva. Tony loves Ziva.

Too often our media feeds us the cotton candy of stories about relationships built on lust and calls them "love stories." Tony and Ziva's is a real love story. I'm glad it's on TV.